Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Jerusalem's Open!

This was one amazing, exhausting, wild process-- exactly, maybe, as it should be for a play such as Jerusalem.  Jez Butterworth's lopsided masterpiece draws craziness to it like a magnet.  But the set-- which includes a camper we cut into three pieces and then re-assembled in the space-- is beautiful.  The costumes (designed by Scarlett Kellum) are rich and quirky.  The sound will get you dancing in your seats.  The lights (almost a 100 cues for a show that takes place outside during daytime) takes you on a journey.  During tech, we had photographer Olya Gary come take some photos, and that's what I'm sharing here today.

by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Misha Hawk-Wyatt

March 4-26, 2016
The Phoenix Theatre,
414 Mason St., San Francisco, CA
(415) 355-6087

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Friday, February 12, 2016

The Power and Guile of the First Line

“If music be the food of love, play on.”
That's the first line of a play.  Easy enough to guess Shakespeare, but which one?  Taming of the Shrew?  Richard III?  Midsummer?  If you guessed Twelfth Night, you'd be correct.

From a dramatic standpoint, the first moments of a play have to hold the heart of the conflict.  It's disguised, layered, waiting to be unveiled, but it has to be there.  The first moments have to sustain an energy that will propel the characters through the next two hours.  

"What I find most astonishing... is the belief that I might very easily-- as they say-- lose my mind one day, not that I suspect I am about to, or am even... nearby...."

The author throws in a few extra clauses into that long sentence that I omitted, sentence fragments meant to disguise the central theme of the play, but you can still feel the energy.  And if you know what play it's from, you feel it even stronger.  Guesses?  It's the first line of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. Yeah, makes sense now. 

It's rare, though, that I writer invests the central conflict or theme in the very first line.  Typically, it's spread throughout the first scene.  It takes enormous control of your narrative to successfully embed it the way Albee does here.  So it's with a bit of awe that I write Jez Butterworth's first line for Jerusalem.  


A question delivered as a statement.  Though spoken to Parsons, Mrs. Fawcett is calling "time's up" on Johnny Rooster Byron; Butterworth is dramatizing the changes of time in England, from the glory of old-- with its myths and power-- to the mundanity of new.  Nearly every character in Jerusalem refers to time, and for Johnny Rooster the question is whether he can call the ancient power of the past into the present in time to save his skin.

Powerful stuff, first lines.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Increase Web Presence by Tagging Photos - A How To

Short and simple, this one.  And it may be overly basic to some and absolutely revelatory to others.  It's one of those things I frequently forget to do and then curse the sky after hitting "post."

Images and video are incredible tools for engaging audiences and clients.  They're some of the most powerful tools you have.  But they don't reach out to anyone as images (people have to stumble upon them).  Search engines don't scan and categorize images, they scan the metadata connected to it. So before you post a single image (or video) on the web, open up the properties and add identifying information!  It looks like this:

Here's a master class tip: never over "tag" a picture, post, etc.  Search engines weight each tag equally, so if you have too many it just dilutes the searchability.  Only use 3-4 tags.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Innovative Marketing for Theatre

This, mate, might be more of a question than an answer.  We've just released a new video for our production of Jerusalem at the Phoenix.  It's both an innovative way to market the show, and a practical tool for helping audiences understand the thick British slang that pervades the play and sets the mood.  We wanted something light, fun, engaging, and informal-- that would get you inside not the world of the play so much as the world of the actors.  Here's what we did:

In comparison to other theatre companies, I'd say Second Wind operates on a shoe string.  We make amazing things happen on almost nothing.  Theatre is, after all, primarily an exercise of imagination.  The audience knows the action is a fiction, but suspend their disbelief to to allow their imaginations to journey on a rollercoaster of emotion and thought.

Over the past two decades, we've let our imagination explore a whole range of innovative, inexpensive marketing adventures.  Guerilla marketing, by another name.  How to get butts in seats tends to be one of those guarded secrets in the theatre world (like marketing budgets).  So let's let the cat out of the bag.

Most of the time it's hard to say whether a marketing technique is effective.  The metrics aren't there for a good evaluation, and there are typically complex variables.  I could talk for a long time about what worked and didn't work about each of these, but instead I'm going to give it a simple "grade" for effectiveness. If you want me to explain why I gave a specific tool a certain grade, leave me a post.

Post Show Discussions. I've included this because it's something you can promote and advertise beyond the show.  We've done a number-- critic from the SF Chronicle for our production of Ghost in the Light about art forgeries; Israeli Consultate/MoveOn.org/Jewish Voice for Peace for our production of Murder; GMO activist Pamm Larry for Lullaby Tree.  The effective score varies, largely based on how controversial the play topic; the more controversial the better. The score is a range:  D-B

Wallet Drop. For A Beautiful Home for the Incurable will bought five used wallets, filled them with the fake I.D. of one of the play characters, and a message informing the "finder" that they had just won a free ticket to the show if they return the wallet.  We dropped five in various locations, one "returned." Score: C+

Played 3 Card Monty at the Tix Booth.  Almost got kicked out of the square on this one, but we set up a 3-Card Monty game in front of the SF Tix Booth for our production of Top Dog/Underdog. The game is played in the show.  Dressed as the character (a black-faced Lincoln) we challenged people waiting in line to play; winner received a free concessions voucher.  Score B-.

Art Contest. For Ghost in the Light we conducted a "forgery" contest at the three major art schools in SF. Winner received tickets to the show, their work displayed in the lobby, and they joined the panel discussion with the SF Chronicle critic.  Score C+

Behind the Scenes Video. We do this constantly.  We photograph rehearsals and put them into video, and  film special activities related to the video.  Wander around this blog and you'll see what I mean.  Score B

Post on Related Forums.  There are forums for everything.  For The Tender King we engaged in conversations on World War II history forums (the play dealt with Truman's decision to drop the bomb).  Score D

Elite Pass. For two of our productions we created an Elite Pass that would give members special privileges:  frree drinks, free returns, half-price youth ticket, and a workshop.  Score (B-)

Dress Up a Car. For several shows I've gotten a big magnet sticker for the side of my car.  Costs about $25.  But for The Woman in Black I went all out.  The sticker featured a hand coming out of a grave; a severed hand appeared in the window as a continuation.  It was October, and the show is a ghost story.  Got some looks.  Score C+

For comparison, I'll give my scores on some traditional marketing tools: Twitter (C-), Facebook (B), Youtube (B), Google Adwords (C-), Facebook ads (C), Posters (C+)

You'll notice nothing scored higher than a "B". That's because none of them beat word of mouth, building an audience base, email, and postcards.  Part of the "genius" of the Jerusalem video is that its designed to get the cast and crew-- who are a part of that word-of-mouth system-- excited about the show.  And it can be "re-used" on multiple platforms.

But these are just some of the things we've done around untraditional marketing.  What have you done?  Share an idea.  Join the conversation.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Memorize Deeper, Faster


Normally I’d avoid blogging about something as pedantic as how to memorize your lines.  But we’re working on a bloody big play. And a quick internet search for memorization techniques produced an astounding array of crappy suggestions.  Such as this Chicago Tribune article on the topic. And you’d think Backstage magazine would have something helpful to say on the matter; instead they produced this.

So let’s take a poll.  Who here memorizes by studying their lines for fifteen minutes and then taking a nap to let it sink in?  Brilliant.
Let's get real
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work on a number of two and three character plays where you’re tasked with memorizing an hour or more of lines.  Kiss of the Spiderwoman, by Manuel Puig, is one great example: two actors that never leave the stage.  So I’ve built up some techniques for quickly learning lines.

Break it up into sections
Do your script analysis before you try to memorize.  Identify the arc of each scene, your intentions, and when you shift tactics to get what you want.  Don’t let it become one big scene.
Review before and after each rehearsal
Hopefully you’ve got a fantastic stage manager (thank you JB!) who tells you the scenes you’ll be working on in advance.  Set aside 40 minutes before each rehearsal for learning lines: spend the first 15 minutes reviewing the scene you worked during the last rehearsal, and the last 25 minutes reviewing the scene you’re about to rehearse.  Working this way you sandwich your rehearsal time with the director and actors with individual study.  This technique alone often gets me 80% memorized by the time the play is blocked.
Sometimes it's hard to carve out 40 minutes of focused memorization time. One of the easiest solutions is to arrive 40 minutes before your call.  Sit in your car-- or outside if it's a nice day-- and work your lines.

Connect your blocking to the lines
I’ve said it before:  blocking is dialogue.  If the director isn’t giving you clear blocking, give it to yourself.  Make sure that the movement is motivated by the line; that way, your blocking will pull the lines up out of memory.  (Oddly enough, it also helps you remember your blocking better, too....)  Commit to the blocking until your lines are solid and then start exploring new movement on stage.

Walk and talk
That monologue tripping you up?  Take your script and go for a walk.  Research actually supports the idea that physical movement like walking aids memorization. 

Understand the prompt
Getting lost in the dialogue?  You’ve already broken the scene into its smaller actions during your script analysis.  If you're still running into road blocks, spend time looking at your partner’s lines.  What are you reacting to?  Where’s the prompt?  It’s not always the last thing the other character says; you might be dwelling on something they said a page ago.

What doesn’t work
Everybody is different, so I’m sure some actors will object to my “don’t” list.  But these are things I find aren’t helpful in memorizing quickly and thoroughly.  Silently re-reading the script over and over.  Learning isn’t about ingesting information, it’s about regurgitating information.  Don’t just re-read the script, get up and act it out.   SPEAK your lines. Test yourself.  Audio recording your partner’s lines.  You may learn something from recording all those lines, but unless you’ve got a three-hour car ride it’s probably not helping much.  Skip it.  Using mnemonic devices.  Okay, I would never have thought to suggest this because frankly it’s insane, but mnemonics was actually suggested in one of the articles above. Let me be clear: never use mnemonic devices.  They’re good for memorizing license plates but have nothing to do with your character or the play.
There's a lot of working expertise out there-- what works for you?  Any technique you use as an actor that I haven't mentioned?  Anything I've said that you disagree with?  Chime in.  Make it your own.



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Monday, January 18, 2016

Kicking Everything Off with Jerusalem

Last night was the first read-thru of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, and oh-man-oh-man.  This is going to be a ride.  Even around the table, the play is funny, visceral, and gut-wrenching.  And complicated.  Very complicated-- both to stage, with songs, dancing, fights, and a Shakespearian sense of movement through the woods, but also to understand.  There are layers upon layers, and so many different ways to appreciate the drama.  Comedy.  Drama.  Whatever.

As always, we kick off the rehearsal process with lots and lots of food.

But more than kicking off our rehearsal process, we're also kicking off this round of blog posts.  For the next 12 weeks we'll be sharing tips, insights, inspiration, new perspectives, ground-breaking ideas, and everything theatre.  So come on back.

And here's the first heads up: for the next three days, our ticket prices are 30% off their regular price as a part of our Early Bird Special.  But come Friday, they're going up, so grab your now:  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2465184

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Jerusalem Auditions, Casting and More!

Casting a show with 14 characters (and a minimum of 12 actors) is a monster of an activity.  In the past I've shared a few tips about auditions and casting, but sometimes only brute perseverance can help you.  Some of our actors spent four hours at callbacks.  Only to be called back for a second round.  In all, we held five casting calls of various types over the course of a month.  But in the end we found a stellar cast:  Tyler Barns, Emily Carson, Stefin Collins, Michael DiMartini, Matt Harvey, Grace Ingland, Becky Raeta, Nickolas Rice, Natalie Walker, and Ian Walker as Johnny Rooster.  You can check out our promo above and out show image below....

Now that we 're back in production, you can expect more theatre tips, insights, resources, and updates!

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Going National

Jerusalem Second Wind Productions

Whew! That was a long nap.  Like the best of sleeps, there was truly unusual and inspiring things going on under the surface-- that looks so calm and relaxed.  I'll write more about that in a little bit, but we've leapt out of bed and into action, so I should cover a couple of immediate items first. 

Yes! We're gearing up an ambitious, raucous, and thought-provoking production of Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth.  For those unfamiliar with the play, it has nothing to do with the Middle East; it was, however, a major hit in London and New York, garnering rave reviews from every major newspaper.  Auditions are being held on August 9th and we're looking for a wide range of actors from 9-65 years of age.  For more info, visit Second Wind's website here.

National Black Theatre Festival

Between then and now I'll be going national in North Carolina for the National Black Theatre Festival, a week-long bonanza of performances, workshops, and talks.  They'll be presenting a reading of my newest work, One Drop of Blood, which explores divisions within the black community in this pressurized environment of vigilantism and racial conflict.  It is a re-working of an earlier work, Vigilance, into the black community, that also asks the question of how Black and Whites deal differently when faced with similar threats to their way of live.  Given the time (racial relations today), the place (the South), and a majority African-American audience, I'm very curious to see what it evokes.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What’s “shocking” in theatre?

Albee’s Zoo Story.  Or Sylvia, or The Goat.  Or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for that matter.  Profanity certainly isn’t shocking anymore; more appalling in excess.  Nudity always has some appeal but it doesn’t really “shock” in this day and age.  And of course there are a handful of truly taboo subjects… and a few dozen flimsy, politically incorrect, expressions that substitute for the truly taboo.

Our current production could be (let’s face, most likely someone will be) called shocking.  In a recent interview, Albee became insulted when the reporter suggested that he was intentionally shocking in his work.  Albee replied that he “put it in there because that’s what was happening.”  It was the logical extension, expression of the character's given circumstance, psychologically. 

In writing A Beautiful Home for the Incurable, a play about an agoraphobic man, I became concerned that as a comedy it would either be considered offensive or un-funny.  I spoke with a friend who suffered from agoraphobia, and she said that if I just wrote the truth it wouldn’t be offensive, but it would be funny.  There wasn't any humor in the experience of mental illness, but its expression was often quite funny. That’s how I feel about the idea of shocking.  As a tool for engaging the audience, shock tactics are trash, manipulation of the worst kind.  The truth can be plenty shocking on its own.  In The Disappearance of Mary Rosemary the shocking elements are a natural extension of the characters; in my mind, they are the only outcome, the only choice that made logical sense.  Perhaps people would be less shocked if I had fully explored things in a more literary fashion, from a distance, but that would also lack truth.  One doesn’t have to “explore” a glass of water being knocked over; it simply happens.  And the glass does get knocked over.

UPDATE 10/10/13:  I predicted that this production would be called shocking, but it wasn't until it happened that I recognized what polite "finger-pointing" looks like in this  day and sensibility.  People, especially those that want to considered educated and liberal, don't like to appear "shocked" by anything that might reveal them to be narrow minded.  Instead, they devise euphemisms to convey their dismay, while portraying themselves as "unshocked."  A reviewer, after being wholly distracted by the fact that the play wasn't a Woman in Black clone (a play they felt we produced exceedingly well in 2009), remarked that the ending was "VC Andrews" but not in a good way.  Which is the polite way of saying it shocked her sensibilities, but she didn't want to admit it.  The problem-- besides wanting the play to be something it wasn't designed to be-- is that being shocked means being thoughtless, unreflective, taking one's own preconceptions and values as universal without examining what the text may be conveying.  The problem with "shocked" is that it is entirely self-satisfied.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

My Director's Notes Go Video

The Disappearance of Mary Rosemary has opened with a bang!  For the past couple of shows I've wanted to do my "Director's Notes" in the program as a video-- accessible by QR Code in the program.  Previously, the last weeks of rehearsals/load-in/tech have been so hectic that I haven't been able to even attempt video notes, but this show I finally did it.  I don't know whether it will truly prompt people to use their phones to see/hear my notes; we'll see.

For those without smart phones, here it is:


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